Search Warrant Law and Legal Definition

A search warrant is an order issued by a judge that authorizes police officers to conduct a search of a specific location. A search warrant describes the address to be searched, identifies the persons (if known) and any articles intended to be seized. Such a search warrant can only be issued upon a sworn written statement of a law enforcement officer seeking the warrant to the magistrate and requesting the magistrate to issue the warrant based on the probability of criminal activity. Police may search a dwelling even when the occupant is not present and even without exigent circumstances.

The 4th Amendment to the Constitution specifies: "…no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched and the persons or things to be seized." The 14th Amendment applies the rule to the states. Evidence unconstitutionally seized cannot be used in court, nor can evidence traced through such illegal evidence. A defendant has standing to challenge the legality of a search on Fourth Amendment grounds only if he has a "legitimate expectation of privacy" in the place searched.

The Fouth Amendment protects against unreasonable searches. In one case involving the search of a student's purse by school officials, the U.S. Supreme Court stated that "determining the reasonableness of any search involves a twofold inquiry: first, one must consider "whether the . . . action was justified at its inception;" second, one must determine whether the search as actually conducted "was reasonably related in scope to the circumstances which justified the interference in the first place."

The Supreme Court has ruled that individuals in automobiles have a reduced expectation of privacy, however, there must be probable cause or a reasonable suspicion of criminal activity before a vehicle may be searched. Items in "plain view" may be seized; areas that could potentially hide weapons may also be searched. Any part of the vehicle can be searched if probable cause exists. However, passengers may not be searched without probable cause or consent from the passenger(s) to search their persons or effects.

The return of evidence seized pursuant to a search warrant is governed in federal law by Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 41 (e). State rules vary, so local law should be consulted.